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The Cross and the Raft

 Old Testament Reading­: Genesis 6:11-17

New Testament Reading­: Matthhew 16:24

 I have been planning to preach this morning's sermon for some time. But what made me decide to write it and give it this week was a conversation Carol and I had after church last week. She said she felt some people might be affronted or at least confused by my not infrequent remarks that "The Bible says this, but I don't care," "We can't be sure Jesus said this or that," etc. How can I make so free with the Holy Bible, a book with a halo?

It's not that Carol's religious views are more conservative than mine -- far from it! But she is always sensitive to people's possible reactions, a skill that I rely on. 

And since this sermon idea bore on that topic, I decided this might be the time for it. 

I have to begin (as though I have not yet begun!) with a parable from Buddhist, I think specifically Zen, tradition. A bit of background: Zen is a radical sort of Buddhism which is often depicted by strange and shocking images such as that of a monk tearing asunder the scroll of scripture, or using holy images as so much kindling wood. I tell you, I like a religion that can do things like that! But how can they? Here is where the Parable of the Raft comes in. 

In all forms of Buddhism, Buddhism itself is compared to a raft. "Mahayana" Buddhism is the great raft, "Hinayana" Buddhism the narrow raft. The idea is that you need to get from this place to another, better place. You need to get from Samsara to Nirvana, from worldly existence with its lust and pain to the other side where lust and pain are extinguished like a flame.

You have a river to cross to go from here to there, and there is no bridge. But luckily there is a raft, or you can make one. The raft, then, is absolutely crucial -- but only while you are fording the stream. Hear then the parable, or the conclusion thereof. The Buddha asked,

 Would he be a clever man if, out of gratitude for the raft that has carried him across the stream to safety, he, having reached the other shore, should cling to it, take it on his back, and walk about with the weight of it? Would not the clever man be the one who left the raft (of no use to him any longer) to the current of the stream, and walked ahead with out turning back to look at it? Is it not simply a tool to be cast away and forsaken once it has served the purpose for which it was made? In the same way the vehicle of the doctrine is to be cast away and forsaken once the other shore of Enlightenment has been attained.

I invite you to contrast with this splendid parable the Gospel text we read this morning. In it Jesus says, "If any one would join me, let him take up his cross and follow me."

Insofar as this saying mandates the courage of one's convictions, it is to be accepted and honored. There can be no excuse for what in fact has become predominant in our day: a popular Christianity in which the cross is a plus sign, as one TV evangelist says, in which Christ has been confused with Mammon, and the object of faith is to get rich. If this saying disabuses us of the fatal illusion that following Christ is a joy ride, well and good. It has done its work. 

But seen a different way, the implications of the saying are a little distressing. For in it does not Jesus advocate doing just what the Buddha lampooned? In both sayings we have the striking image of a man bearing about on his back a heavy wooden structure as an act of religious discipleship. Only where Gautama the Buddha ridicules it, Jesus the Christ urges it. 

I do not mean to suggest that Jesus and the Buddha were at odds. Rather my point is that I regard it as a mistake to understand and apply Jesus' saying in such a way that it would fall prey to the Buddha's criticism. For me, it must mean something else. 

Because I do believe that the doctrine, the faith, the symbols of the Christian tradition may and eventually must be transcended. And that if you are unwilling even to entertain that prospect, you are in danger of committing idolatry. Perhaps even an idolatry of the Cross. 

You see, the Buddha is saying that none of the trappings of religion is important as anything other than a vehicle to get you to that farther shore. For that, they are vitally important (though, Zen theorizes, not necessarily the only way to do it: there may be shortcuts). But once they have done their job, what is their interest? Museum relics. Childish things to be put aside. 

Wouldn't that be equally true of the Cross and Christianity? Are they instruments of salvation? Jesus may be the way, but is he the destination? Isn't he the way to God? He himself says he is not the destination. What does he say? "Whoever believes in me believes not in me, but in him who sent me."

What I'm getting at is that if what was supposed to be a means to an end becomes instead an end in itself, then you are making it an ­obstacle­ in the way of the very goal it was designed to lead to! By idolizing it, you are stymieing its very purpose! The purpose of a raft is simply to ford the stream, ­nothing else­! 

You may say that the Buddha's parable is true in the abstract but in practice irrelevant since you and I are still crossing the stream. None of us are beyond need of the raft! 

All right, maybe that's true. But the fact remains: if you think the raft is never to be left behind, if it is for you a permanent fixture -- you are making absolutely sure you will never get to the other side of the stream! 

You will stay there in the river so you can stay on the blessed raft! What's the point? If you are so certain you will never be leaving the raft, you won't even be on the look-out for the shore! 

If eventually you do hit it, you will tell yourself, "Uh-oh! I guess I'm running aground on some rocks! I'd better pull out into deeper waters!" And so you'll retreat from the shore like the faint-hearted Israelites who retreated from the promised victory at Kadesh-Barnea, and went back into the desert for 40 dreary years! 

If all this Bible-plus-Buddhism sounds like syncretism with a thin Christian veneer, let me remind you that this Zen attitude is the very essence of Protestantism, what Tillich called "the Protestant Principle." 

The motive force of Protestantism was the recognition that only God is ultimate. There is properly no ultimate concern but he. Everything else is secondary at best. Is the eucharist holy in its own right? No, only insofar as it mediates salvation to us.  

Is the Bible holy? Yes, but only insofar as it "bears Christ" to us. Martin Luther was quite clear on this point. The creeds, the doctrines, none of them is a sacred cow. No ark is untouchable. Because if they are, then they are God. 

No opinion, no theological theory, not even the Trinity or the divine nature of Christ, can be unquestionable, but if they are, then they have become the objects of worship. The true God has been shrunk down to the proportions of an idol. 

Let me switch religions again. Here is a saying of Jesus from an Islamic source. In it Jesus is referring to this world, but I think it equally applicable to the Bible and all religious trap pings. "This world is a bridge: pass over it, but do not build your dwelling upon it." And so with the Bible: not an end in itself; rather a stop-gap measure. 

I may seem to you to speak of holy things in a cavalier way. But that is because I have learned this lesson, if no other.

Last Sunday night Carol and I were watching a C-SPAN broadcast of a panel of political handlers and spin doctors discussing the presidential campaign. The inevitable soon became obvious. These guys were all committed supporters of Bush, Perot, or Clinton. Thus the whole thing was a charade. They were party hacks. Everything they said was axe-grinding propaganda. All of it was worthless. No one could be trusted to say what he really thought. They were a bunch of miserable yes-men, like the court prophets of Israel, on the king's payroll to use God as a ventriloquist dummy to prophesy whatever the king wanted to hear! 

Must a theologian, must a preacher, be a party hack for the church? Must he or she bend over backwards to defend the Bible or the institution at every point? When we do that, we discredit the whole thing! If there is really any value in the thing, the only way to find out is to call a spade a spade. Take a sober look at it with as clear and unprejudiced an eye as you can manage. 

If you don't, let me tell you what will happen. You will lose all sense of judgment. Matthew tells you to beware false prophets. How? "By their fruits you shall know them." But you will no longer be able to perform that task. 

If you are a good theologian, licking the boots of the Holy Bible, that is, making every part of the Bible sound holy, no matter what it ­really­ sounds like, you will soon lose any sense for what deserves to be called holy and what doesn't! 

You read the wonderful utterances of the Sermon on the Mount or the Prophet Isaiah, and you recognize there something so special that you are tempted to call it the Word of God. And then you read the bogeyman stories of Leviticus and Acts, where erring believers are struck down by a peevish deity for failing to meet their church pledge or for daring to challenge the authority of God's self-appointed spokesmen. If you had any moral judgment at all, you would reject this as so much priest craft and humbug. 

But you have been taught that it is better Christianity to eschew judgment. To make these absurdities as much the Word of God as the sublime oracles of Jesus Christ. Woe unto you, who call good evil and evil good! And woe to the fossilized doctrine that made you do it! 

This misdirected veneration is like that of the fanatical fan. Have you met someone who is so devoted to the work of a particular actor, artist, writer, or whatever, that he can no longer see any difference in quality between the artist's masterpieces and his pathetic juvenilia? He loves the artist's work ­too­ much! He degrades the masterpiece by thinking the dreck just as good! 

So with the Bible! By raising the voodoo killing of Ananias and Sapphira or Dathan and Abiram to the level of the poetry of Isaiah, you are really lowering the great prophet to their level! 

The Bible is a raft! Sail on it, but if you think your job is to bear it up forever, with all its superstitions and moral out rages, you will need the strength of Atlas. Cast it aside! 

Or at least cast aside the blasphemy that in whole and in part it is the Word of God! 

Some years ago John McKenzie wrote a couple of books called The Old Testament Without Illusion and The New Testament Without Illusion. I am trying to strip from myself any illusions about the Bible, to see if there is anything there that is ­not­ illusion! And of course you know I see remaining a great chest open and filled with treasures. I have named some of them. There are many more.

Another thing happened to me last Sunday. In the afternoon I participated in the ordination of Jo Ellen Willis to the Unitarian ministry. I knew Jo Ellen briefly at Drew. One afternoon she had introduced herself to me, telling me she knew me from my writings in The Epistle.

 A couple of weeks ago, I received the engraved invitation to her ordination. Then I assumed it was pro forma to invite all the clergy of the town. I decided to go. When I got there I realized she had invited me personally, and that all the other clergy present were Unitarian Universalists! I had, as it were, been honorarily added to their number for the day! I felt quite honored. And as the service proceeded, God help me, I felt like I belonged there! 

But I will admit to one complaint: there were no Bible readings, no scripture readings of any kind, not Christian, not Buddhist, as I read you this morning! Instead there were only a couple of sappy blank verse, touchy-feely poems. 

I have not reached the farther shore. So I still use and love the Bible. But I do not think the Bible is the farther shore, so I do not worship the Bible. I do not speak of it meekly, in hushed tones. I do not flinch at being judged by it, but neither do I flinch at judging it ­­when necessary. I may not have the courage to carry the cross, but I do have sense enough not to carry the raft. How about you?

Robert M. Price



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